The central heating boiler in our house pops on in the morning and makes a low, continuous hum as it warms the house. It’s always there, providing a layer of sound on which every other sense sits.
We live close to a main road, and on a rainy day there is a constant swoosh of tyres displacing water, adding another layer of sound.
We are radio lovers – and it’s a rare moment when you can’t hear the mutter of indistinct speech from some corner of the house – a third layer of ambient sound blending with the others.
But I can remember times, too warm for heating, dry enough to silence the traffic, when I was alone in the house with no radio on. Then there was nothing but nothing; an empty silence in which the mind can rest.
I can remember those times, but I can no longer visit them. Last year I was diagnosed with a tumour affecting the balance centre of my left ear. It gives me no symptoms at the moment, except that it presses on the nerves that control my hearing. As a result I have a constant noise in my head, akin to the boiler plus the traffic plus the distant radio. It’s not loud, but it’s always there. Bach’s piano sonatas are now accompanied by a low drone like a distant hoover. Every word I write, I write onto paper that already has a covering of random marks. Even my silent prayers are accompanied by a humming chorus.
It’s strange to think that the signals that create this noise don’t relate to anything in the real world outside my head. I’m not hearing anything except the interference on the line between ear and brain. This is a noise that has no value. It isn’t useful. It doesn’t offer information or remind me of danger or reassure me that someone is present. I can’t share it with you. It is the noise of my own soul.
There are only two ways this noise will stop. I could treat my tumour with surgery. The likelihood is that if and when I do this, the sounds will end, and so will my hearing. I have the choice of constant background noise or perpetual silence. For today I choose noise.
The other way it will end is with my death. One day my whole body will fall silent as I begin to explore new layers of sense that none of us can yet imagine. For today I choose life.
I no longer have the option to choose silence – to stand in a field of virgin snow listening to nothing, or lie very still and hold my breath and experiment with the absence of sound. So instead I choose to live in a world of noise. I notice the sound of the passing cars and their drivers, the raindrops falling on the window ledge, the reassuring radio and the hum of my computer. And I notice moment by moment the sounds of my own flawed internal circuitry, reminding me that I am alive again today – reminding me to choose life.